UPDATE: A special memorial service honoring Roberta “Bosey” Foote will be held at 2 p.m. May 29 at the Edward. T. Foote II University Green on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus, 1300 Memorial Drive. To RSVP, email email@example.com or call 305-284-2875.
In the 1970s, the University of Miami battled a reputation as Suntan U. But all that sun once shone on a rather, well, drab campus of concrete.
Until Roberta “Bosey” Foote came along.
As the Coral Gables campus emerged and climbed the national rankings for its educational achievements and rose above the Playboy-touted party reputation, its grounds also bloomed under Foote’s direction.
Many would say the two go hand-in-hand.
“She did believe that making places beautiful raised the game,” said her daughter Julia Foote LeStage. “If your surroundings were gorgeous and you respected them, you respected yourself in that space.
“She was a woman of her age often defined by ‘wife of...’ and ‘daughter of...’ but she was a full person. She was Bosey Foote. She was this silent force and had a vision that the UM should be a tropical garden, and that was her legacy. If you are competing against Princeton, you better look like Shangri-Las,” LeStage said.
Foote died of complications from cancer Tuesday at 76. Her work on the UM campus is in every plant, leaf and bit of natural beauty that she helped put there.
Foote first came to the University of Miami in 1981 with her husband, Edward Tad Foote II, who was previously dean of the law school at Washington University in St. Louis. Tad Foote served as UM president for 20 years.
Bosey Foote’s attention to the physical beauty of the Coral Gables campus became her mission through an extensive beautification program she helped orchestrate. She opened a series of palmetums featuring palms and cycads from several countries and was an ardent supporter of the university’s John C. Gifford Arboretum, a collection of rare plants and trees maintained for educational and research purposes and to inspire an appreciation for tropical plants.
“Bosey’s contribution to the university has been tremendous,” her husband once said. “The most obvious example is the campus environment, but no one will ever truly know how important she has been to the University of Miami, except me. We’ve done this together.”
Bosey Foote, born Dec. 27, 1938, in Arkansas as the daughter of the late U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, namesake of the Fulbright scholarship, might have been “the silent force” her daughter spoke of, a woman with “a wonderful, cozy elegance about her,” but her work has been noticed by others.
“Bosey Foote was a devoted partner and parent and a pillar of the University of Miami community,” said UM President Donna Shalala, Foote’s successor. “She was always at Tad’s side in helping to raise this university to new heights, and she served this institution with strength and grace and was the driving force behind turning our Coral Gables campus into the beautiful botanical garden that it is today.”
Friend Lynden Miller, a public garden designer in New York, first met Foote 67 years ago when the two sat in fifth grade together in Washington, D.C. She marveled at her friend’s quick study in Miami.
“She was from the north and ... she taught herself about the plants by driving around and learning about them. She felt this tremendous need to beautify the UM campus. She understood the tremendous importance for creating lovely surroundings to enhance the [students’] learning and give pride to the university.
“I will never see a tropical plant again without thinking of her joy and delight at the diversity and colors and shapes and wonderful plants around Miami that she really loved,” Miller said.
Foote, a volunteer at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, was delighted that her youngest son, Edward Thaddeus Foote III, took a teaching job at the venue.
“One of the greatest gifts she gave us was this appreciation of natural beauty — whether it’s a flower or collecting shells or stopping to watch the sunset. Fairchild was a source of inspiration for her and me.I teach students from all over Miami to appreciate the natural world and I credit her in a great way towards that. ... This opens people’s minds to learn and to share and think creatively,” Thaddeus Foote said.
Son William Foote runs a nonprofit organization that works in habitat conservation and tropical landscape management across rural Africa and Latin America. “Like Thaddeus, I take much of my inspiration from Mom's example set here in Miami, committed as she was to natural beauty, South Florida ecology and sharing the wealth with everyone.”
During her two decades as UM’s first lady, Foote also worked to improve the status of women at the university, and in 2001 she was recognized with the May A. Brunson Award, named after UM’s second dean of women.
“She was a woman born in the ’30s and raised in the ’50s and she wanted me to have a full, modern life,” her daughter said. “I have a tech company I just sold last week and she very much wanted me to be a full person. I am the mother of three daughters and I am raising a barnyard of strong women to honor my mother.”
In addition to her husband and children, Foote is survived by eight grandchildren. Services are pending.
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.